General information: First Jewish presence: 1345; peak Jewish population: 980 in 1900; Jewish population in 1933: 797
Summary: The Jewish community of Bielefeld developed in the mid- 17th century. The community’s first cemetery, located outside the city gates, was consecrated in 1660. By 1705, local Jews had established prayer rooms in several homes; the rooms were moved to different locations on several occasions before 1847, when the congregation inaugurated a synagogue, with a mikveh and organ, on Klosterstrasse. Many Bielefeld Jews traded in textiles, and by the beginning of the 19th century they were dominating the town’s textile industry. The Liberal congregation had a mixed choir, conducted its services in German and even rescinded, in 1856, the requirement for a minyan. Bielefeld’s Jewish elementary school—which had been operating in a private residence on Am Damm since 1825, later moving to the Klosterstrasse synagogue—closed in 1876. In 1891, a new Jewish cemetery was consecrated next to the Johannesfriedhof. The Klosterstrasse synagogue deteriorated as the years went by, and the building was demolished in 1906, one year after the inauguration of a new synagogue at 5 Turnerstrasse. The new house of worship not only provided seating for 450 men and 350 women, with separate entrances, but also housed an additional prayer hall for Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe. There was a Jewish community center next door. Local Jews were active in public life and ran a sisterhood, a youth organization and a chevra kadisha. At some point in the 20th century, the community became the regional center for the Jewish youth movement in Northwest Germany; beginning in 1921, the ORT, the Scouts and Hechalutz (the Pioneer Association) conducted Zionist activities in Bielefeld. Restrictions were imposed on Jewish residents immediately after the Nazis’ election victories, affecting their businesses, financial standing and everyday lives. Mass emigration began in 1935. On Pogrom Night, rioters set the synagogue and its neighboring administrative building on fire, but not before stealing the Torah scrolls and silverware. Jewish homes and stores were ravaged (some were plundered), men were physically attacked and up to 50 were arrested. Two hundred Jewish residents left Bielefeld during the following ten months. After the pogrom, Bielefeld’s Jews were forcibly moved into collective, Jewish-only housing and assigned to forced labor; their children were expelled from German schools. A “re-education camp” accommodated Jews from elsewhere, and they, too, were sent to perform forced labor at a camp, over which a local Jew was put in charge under Gestapo supervision. At least 509 Bielefeld Jews, who were eventually deported in a total of nine transports, perished in the Shoah. After the war, 52 Jews returned to Bielefeld and resumed communal activities. A synagogue and community center were set up in 1963; and a memorial stone, bearing a picture of the destroyed synagogue, was unveiled in 1978.
Photo: Interior of the synagogue of Bielefeld, probably before 1933. Courtesy of: City Archive of Bielefeld.
Photo 2: The burning synagogue of Bielefeld on the morning after Pogrom Night. Courtesy of: City Archive of Bielefeld.
Author / Sources: Ruth Martina Trucks
Sources: EJL, FJG, LJG, SG-NRW